Americans try to shift into 'carbon neutral'
To combat global warming, many try to remove as much carbon dioxide from the atmosphere as they add to it.
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But some argue that even though the offset programs may be of dubious value, little more than paying lip service to cutting carbon, they still serve a valuable function in educating the public.Skip to next paragraph
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It's true that Americans can pay for their "carbon sins" with a relatively small amount of money, says Michele Bowman, a futurist and managing director of Global Foresight Associates in Waltham, Mass. But more important, they'll start to realize exactly what goes into creating carbon emissions and how they're offset, she says. "And that in turn is going to start to change behavior."
Ms. Bowman arranged to have the Pop!Tech conference in Camden, Maine, a gathering of thought leaders interested in how science and technology are shaping the future, go "carbon negative," offsetting its carbon emissions by twice the amount used by the 530 participants (about 800 tons of carbon) while at the October conference and in their travel to and from it. Pop!Tech invested in solar generators that will power villages in the African country of Benin through a group called the Solar Electric Light Fund (www.self.org)
On a grander scale, the Kyoto Protocol has committed countries to reducing greenhouse gas emissions. It has also stimulated a growing worldwide market for carbon-emission permits that are bought and sold between businesses. As a result, some observers say, awareness of the need to cut carbon emissions is higher in participating countries such as Canada and Britain than in the US, which has not signed onto the deal.
But Americans are beginning to catch up, say those involved in the carbon-reduction movement. One big influence has been the "An Inconvenient Truth," the documentary that examines former Vice President Al Gore's crusade against global warming. The film was released in theaters earlier this year and on DVD last month.
"The past year has been tremendous," says Billy Connelly, part owner and marketing director of Native Energy of Charlotte, Vt., which sells carbon offsets. The level of public understanding about carbon emissions is much greater now than two to four years ago when the majority native American-owned company was just starting out.
"It's due in no small part to Mr. Gore's film," he says.
Native Energy invests in solar, wind, and biomass energy-generating projects that aim to "push coal-fired and gas-fired energy off the [electric] grid," Mr. Connelly says. In one native village in Alaska, he says, a wind turbine is replacing expensive diesel fuel that had to be flown in to make electricity.
The villagers have seen firsthand the results of global warming, he says. "The permafrost is literally melting beneath them."
Individuals who have bought carbon offsets from Native Energy include the Middlebury (Vt.) College ski team, Ben & Jerry's ice cream, Clif Bar energy bars, and the Canadian alternative rock band Barenaked Ladies. The Dave Matthews Band has bought enough offsets, Connelly says, to make up for the carbon the group has emitted during its entire 15 years of touring.
Meanwhile, the College of the Atlantic in Bar Harbor, Maine, is proclaiming itself to be the first such institution pledged to be carbon neutral. The college plans to offset all student and faculty commuting to campus and any other carbon emissions "caused by our existence," says college president David Hales.
The school's fleet of boats, for example, has been converted to burn only renewable biofuels.
Students are heavily involved on committees now researching how to determine the size of the college's "carbon footprint" and how to best buy carbon offsets. Whatever offsets are purchased must show that the projects they support have "quantifiable, verifiable" results in reducing carbon emissions, Mr. Hales says.
Trustees, alumni, parents, and donors back the carbon-neutral initiative, he adds. The school's pledge follows other environmental moves at the college. It already buys all of its electricity from a wind- powered source and held a "zero-waste" graduation ceremony last year.
Kenyan environmentalist Wangari Maathai, who won a 2004 Nobel Peace Prize, recently urged what might be the grandest plan yet to offset carbon emissions at last month's international meeting on climate change in Nairobi, Kenya. Ms. Maathai proposed that the world's citizens commit to planting 1 billion trees, which would absorb about 250 million tons of the carbon dioxide now warming the atmosphere.